In Memoriam: George J. Vargo, Jr.

by Kathy Pryor, CHP, Dan Strom, CHP, Dave Allard, CHP, and Kent Lambert, CHP

George Vargo passed away unexpectedly on 20 November 2011, a huge shock and great loss for his wife Susan, their daughter Kate, and his many friends and colleagues.

With about 35 years of experience in the health physics field, George was well known nationally and internationally for his work in the areas of radioactive materials use, nuclear power operations, Chernobyl, National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements Report No. 160 regarding the average public dose from various sources of exposure, and historical worker dose reconstruction.

George’s service to the profession of health physics was impressive. As a Health Physics Society (HPS) member, he served terms of office in the Western New York, Columbia, and Susquehanna Valley Chapters, as well as on the national Membership, Manpower and Professional Education, and International Relations Committees. George was an associate editor and software editor for the Health Physics Journal, serving on the editorial board from 1993 to 2005. He was selected as an official delegate to the International Radiation Protection Association congresses in Montreal, Vienna, and Hiroshima. He was awarded the title of fellow of the Society for Radiological Protection in 1998, fellow of the Institute of Physics in 2000, and fellow of the HPS in 2008. George received the American Board of Health Physics (ABHP) McAdams Outstanding Service Award in 2001.

George was certified by the ABHP in comprehensive practice in 1984 and in the power-reactor specialty in 1986. In 1989, George was granted the Certificate of Competence in Applied Health Physics by the Society for Radiological Protection in the United Kingdom. He was active in the ABHP’s examination process for 14 years and participated on the Power Reactor Certification Examination Panel as a member, vice chair, and chair. This was followed by a five-year term on the ABHP, during which time George served as Board member, parliamentarian, secretary, vice chair, and finally as chair in 1998. George was instrumental in the preparation and submission of the ABHP’s application for accreditation with the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards (CESB). Not only did he serve as the ABHP delegate to the CESB, but he also served as its president in 2005 and 2006.

George developed an interest in health physics during his high school days while working on a science fair project. His project examined the structure of crystals, and George wanted to make measurements of crystal lattice size using x-ray diffraction. In order to obtain the needed measurements, George was referred to the physics department at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, where several faculty members offered to assist him. Before George could use the equipment, however, he was required to complete a detailed radiation safety indoctrination on the potential hazards of the x-ray diffraction equipment and to receive permission from the university’s radiation safety officer.

During the afternoons he spent around the Physics Department at Duquesne, George had the opportunity to meet Dr. Allen Brodsky, who had recently established an undergraduate program in radiological health. George was intrigued by the broad scope of the radiological-health curriculum. He took classes at Duquesne during his senior year of high school and enrolled in the radiological-health program as soon as he was eligible following his high school graduation. After graduating from Duquesne with a BS degree in radiological health, George joined the staff of Radiation Service Organization in Laurel, Maryland, in 1978 as the radiation safety officer. The following year, he headed north to the New York Power Authority’s FitzPatrick Plant to pursue a career in power reactor health physics.

George spent the next 10 years at the FitzPatrick Plant, holding a variety of positions with responsibilities for health physics training, emergency preparedness, respiratory protection, ALARA, and dosimetry. George also obtained a U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Senior Reactor Operator license and, in addition to his regular health physics duties, routinely participated in shift operations for eight years.

While at FitzPatrick, George became interested in innovative source term reduction strategies to reduce the relatively high collective dose at the plant. He convinced senior management to invest in chemical decontamination of the reactor coolant system, which resulted in savings of over 700 person-rem and established a world-record decontamination factor for a dilute reagent chemical decontamination. He also participated in and coordinated other source term reduction activities, including hydrogen water chemistry, feedwater zinc addition, and cobalt-reduction programs. To achieve a better understanding of the contribution of various nuclear power plant radiation sources to worker dose, George developed a passive directional radiation probe using an array of TLDs. In 1992, he was granted a U.S. patent for this invention.

Along the way, George completed a master of science degree in health physics from Georgia Institute of Technology and a PhD in applied physics from Columbia Pacific University. He stayed involved in education as an adjunct associate professor of nuclear engineering and engineering physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). At RPI, he supervised a number of senior projects for undergraduate students in the radiological engineering option and served on committees for several MS students.

In 1991, George left New York Power Authority and joined Battelle at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory as a staff scientist. He was invited to join the Department of Energy’s International Nuclear Safety Program, where he assumed a lead role in projects to develop a nuclear and radiation safety regulatory infrastructure in the Russian Federation and to improve emergency preparedness. This program required George to spend significant amounts of time in the Ukraine, as well as many other countries of the former Soviet Union.

George managed the Chernobyl Dose Reduction Project, whose goal was to transfer and upgrade health physics technology at the Chernobyl Shelter. George also edited the book The Chernobyl Accident: A Comprehensive Risk Assessment, which originated from a compilation of Ukrainian technical papers and included assessments of the risks posed by the shelter and damaged reactor, waste management, environmental impacts, and medical effects.

George moved to central Pennsylvania in 2002 to marry his dear friend of over 25 years, Susan. He did independent consulting and historical worker dose reconstruction assessments through MJW Corp for several years. In early 2009, he joined the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Radiation Protection (BRP) as a radiological health physicist performing radioactive materials licensing work. The BRP was fortunate to have George come on board shortly after Pennsylvania became a Nuclear Regulatory Commission Agreement State. He quickly became a great technical asset to BRP, made many new friends and colleagues and, beginning last March, became the unofficial subject-matter expert on the reactor accidents in Japan. As many know, George monitored the Japan situation very closely and provided a daily roll-up document on technical and media reports. He even did this on weekends during the early phase.

Somehow, in addition to this impressive list of professional activities, George found time to engage in such hobbies as photography, amateur radio, model rocketry, and finding and consuming some of the hottest pepper sauces on the face of the earth. He was also active in organizing the Tri-Cities annual Tumbleweed Music Festival in Richland, Washington.

A memorial Mass was held 1 December at St. Gabriel of the Sorrowful Mother Church in Avondale, Pennsylvania. If you wish to send the family a card, please address it to Mrs. Susan E. Vargo, 444 Sharp Road, Avondale, PA 19311.

Lastly and most importantly, aside from being an outstanding HP, George was one of the most fun-loving, warm-hearted, and caring gentlemen you could ever know; he will be greatly missed by many.